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When Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Touré won a Grammy for his 1994 collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu, his reputation as the "African John Lee Hooker" spread worldwide. But Touré refused to play the part. "Music is not my career," he declared. "I am a mechanic, technician, chauffeur, and farmerall that is before music." As for Hooker, Touré said, "He plays tunes whose roots he does not understand. It comes from Africa and particularly from Mali. It comes from history, from the land, nature, animals. It doesn't come from beer and whiskey." Touré died on March 7, after a protracted fight with bone cancer. But he held on long enough to learn he had won a second Grammy for his 2005 collaboration with kora player Toumani Diabaté, In the Heart of the Moon. Diabaté recently suggested an apter tag line for Touré: "the lion of the desert." If there was one thing Touré stood for, and fiercely, it was the patrimony and culture of Mali's arid north.
Touré was born in 1939 in Kanau, a small town on the Niger River. The only survivor out of 10 children, he earned his first nickname, Farka, or "donkey," for his evident tenacity. Educated minimally, Touré grew up in a world where Islam and animism commingled. "When you don't work with the spirits," he once said, "you can't reveal the mysteriesthe secrets. For that, you must have music." As a boy, Touré was seduced by the mystic appeal of the plucked, one-string djerkel and the bowed njarka, both used in Songhai spirit possession ceremonies. He garnered a local reputation but found himself moving away from spirit music, fearing the dangers of the occult. It was only in 1956 that he set his sights on guitar. Guitarist Fodeba Keita, founder of Guinea's National Ballet, inspired him with the idea that music could teach people about culture and history. Touré obtained his first ax in 1968 in Bulgaria, and within four years, he was making recordings for Radio Mali.
Touré's ambivalence about the music profession stemmed from his noble heritage. Highborn folks aren't supposed to be entertainers. His early experiences with the international recording industry did little to improve his attitude. He claimed he had to go to Paris and pull a knife on the owner of his first label in order to get paid. Discussing that whole arrangement, Touré deployed one of his characteristic aphorisms: "When you give your trousers to a monkey, the trees will end up with lots of scarves." But the two records that resulted led to his discovery in England by BBC broadcaster Andy Kershaw and eventually Nick Gold of World Circuit, who would go on to oversee all of Touré's subsequent recordings, an example of artist-producer fidelity that is rare in African music.
As Touré's reputation spread globally, much ink was spilled over the degree to which the blues influenced his sound. Touré always maintained his music was "100 percent traditional," but this was an overstatement. Plenty of northern Mali folklore sounds vaguely bluesy, but no artist's sound had ever made the connection as vividly as Touré's. That said, he approached recording with spontaneity and little calculation. Market-savvy ideas, including the Cooder and Diabaté collaborations and bringing a mobile studio on a barge up the Niger to record Niafunké in 1998, were always Gold's. Touré last toured the U.S. in 1998, then returned to his farm in Niafunké, determined to stay there. He undertook only a few visits to Europe after that, mostly to see doctors rather than to perform. He died in the Malian capital, Bamako, and will be buried in Niafunké.
Touré never made a bad record. For sheer guitar artistry, it's hard to top his spare 1984 release, the "Red" part of the double CD reissued as Red and Green (2004). For his mature ensemble sound, The Source (1992) includes magnificent performances of signature pieces, notably the ecstatic trance song "Goye Kur." Touré's relatively small catalog is certain to endure more vividly than those of many of his celebrated African contemporaries. But his greatest legacy may be the ever growing parade of jazz, rock, folk, and blues musicians, great and small, beating a path to Mali. The distance between the Mississippi Delta and the banks of the Niger gets shorter every day. We have Ali Farka Touré to thank for that.